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Edible Gardening – The Royal Botanic Garden helps us plan ahead for this growing season

I’ve spent so many hours wandering around the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh,  enjoying the fresh air and foliage, no matter what the season.  I’ve read the plaques and little signs but I’ve never taken the time to find out the history of the Garden or to find out more about how they manage to provide this amazing asset to the city.  That’s why it was so nice to have a private tour with Fundraising Manager, Kirtsy Connell ahead of the launch event for this season’s Edible Garden Project.

We started our tour just outside the Cafe, with a cup of hot tea keeping my hands warm on this cold, crisp, sunny winter’s day.  As we looked out over the breathtaking view of Edinburgh, Kirsty brought us up to date with how the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh ended up in its current spot.  The Gardens have a strong medical background as at the time of its creation, there were no pharmaceutical companies, medicine came from plants.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Gardens were founded by two doctors in 1670 on a plot near Holyrood.  Over the years, the gardens expanded to Waverley and then moved to what’s now Leith Walk (point to remember for later!!).   In 1820, The Gardens moved to its current location where it has had room to grow and expand.  Although originally founded to grow exotic, medical plants, The Royal Botanic Garden now works to preserve plant species both native to Scotland and from all over the world in Edinburgh and at 3 more sites: Benmore in Argyll, Dawyck near Peebles and Logan in Galloway.  A full timeline of the RBGE’s history is on their website.

In addition to maintaining the living plants, the RBGE also hold a seed archive (Herbarium) and are a centre of education.  To carry out these important roles, the RBGE is a registered charity that receives funding from the Government along with corporate sponsorship, public donations, memberships and revenue from the glasshouses, cafe, restaurant and shop.

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This funding means that the main gardens have free entry and there are many free events throughout the year.  Such as the one I was invited to attend today, Edible Gardening (getting ready for this growing season).

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Before heading inside to the John Hope Gateway for the talks and demonstrations, Kirsty led us round to where the actual edible gardening takes place, within the Demonstration Gardens.  As we walked through the large cut out in the gigantic beech hedge, everything changed.

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Unlike the pristine/planned/controlled gardens of the rest of the site, this area is for experimentation, used by the gardeners to develop techniques, try out different species and for the public to get involved.

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But instead of seeing a few patches of earth being prepared for planting we were greeted by a building site….

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Turns out the newest building coming to The Gardens will also be the oldest!  Now, does anyone remember the location of The Gardens just before moving to Inverleith?  That’s right – Leith Walk (who peeked?).  When John Hope moved the Botanic Gardens to Leith Walk in 1761, he also built a cottage at the site for the head gardener to live in and with classrooms to teach Botany.  When the Gardens moved from Leith Walk in 1820, the cottage was left behind and by the beginning of the 21st century it was facing demolition.  Luckily a community campaign saved the Botanic Cottage and it was offered back to The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, who is now rebuilding it stone by stone in its new home in the Demonstration Gardens.  Such a happy ending for an important building in the Botanic Garden’s history.  I can’t wait to visit it in the autumn of 2015 when it should be up and running as space for education and events specific to the Demonstration Gardens.

Right now, the Demonstration Gardens are looking a little bare.  Last year’s allotments (used by various organisations and school groups) have been dug up and the ground prepared for the upcoming season.

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Thanks to a Polytunnel, there are still a few winter crops growing in the Edible Garden.

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The Edible Gardening Project is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and has been helping people learn about growing their own food since 2011.

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The crops grown in the Edible Garden Polytunnel are all edible and grown organically.  The gardeners plant seasonal vegetables so that we can follow along at home in real time.  This weekend we see that there are mainly salad crops, which can provide lots of nutrients at this time of year when all the main crops.  All my favourites were here:  rocket, chard, spinach…

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Seeing the vibrant colours and knowing that these greens, when cut fresh, would taste amazing and be full of vitamins and minerals made me sad that my only outside space is a small terrace.  Maybe this year I’ll grow some things in pots.

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Well, now that I saw the Edible Garden, I was ready to head back to the visitor centre and chat with the gardeners.

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Back inside the John Hope Gateway, the Real Life Science Studio was a hive of activity. There were lots of displays and demonstrations.  Gardeners were helping children and adults learn the right tools to use for specific gardening tasks….

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I did well until it came time to differentiate between all the different hoes and spades and forks. I never knew there were so many!!

When I was in the polytunnel, I was thinking the greens were a little sparse – turns out they were harvested that morning so that visitors to the event could have a taste.  That includes me!  We had a choice of dressings.  I thought the sweetness of Balsamic Vinegar was the perfect complement to the sharp, peppery leaves in particular the rocket and mizuna.

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The rest of the produce was so beautifully displayed, it couldn’t help but motivate us all to try and grown our own.

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The Edible Gardeners even gave us a head start by letting us plant our own seeds to take home with us.  I choose to plant some Basil.  I was taken step-by-step through the process. First, have your tools and soil ready.  A tray was prepared with compost, a little spade and some clever hand-made, up-cycled tools.

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I used the little spade to fill my pot just over ¾’s full of compost.

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Someone cleverly screwed a wooden drawer-pull to a circle of wood to create to perfect tool to tap down the soil.  Not too much!  Just a couple light taps…

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Next I was given a dozen or so tiny little black Basil seeds to sprinkle over the soil.  They disappeared from view the second they hit the surface so I had to just sprinkle them around as best as possible.

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Now it was time for another upcycled tool.  The bottom was cut from a clean plastic jar (peanut butter in this case) and covered with the netting from a bag of oranges (doubled over).  Tape held it all together.  This made the perfect sized sieve for sprinkling a fine layer of compost over the top of the seeds.

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A bit of water and it was ready to take home. Hopefully my little seeds will turn out something like this!

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A special thanks to the gardeners for all their enthusiasm and useful advice and to Kirsty Connell for inviting Healthy Edinburgh along for a brilliant afternoon; I loved learning more about the Gardens and about growing vegetables.  If you have any questions about your home grown veg, pop along to the free drop-ins on Monday and Tuesday afternoons (1 to 3pm) when there will be a gardener in the Polytunnel ready to answer all your questions.  You can also follow along with the Edible Garden Blog or buy the RBGE’s book ‘Growing Your Own Vegetables’.

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There are several special events, such as this weekend’s, throughout the year.  In April they’ve planned a cooking event and in September a Harvest Festival.  All made extra special as 2015 is the year of Scotland Food and Drink.  Keep checking the What’s On section of the RGBE website for further details.

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